Almost 60 years after the deeds that won him the nation’s highest military honour, President Joe Biden presented retired Army Col. Paris D. Davis with the Medal of Honor for what the White House called “conspicuous bravery” during combat operations in the Vietnam War.
Davis, who was a captain at the time, “distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” while he was a commander of a special forces group during combat with the enemy over two days in June of 1965, the White House said in a description of Davis’ heroic actions.
Over the course of 20 hours, Davis “had saved each one of his fellow Americans — every single one,” Biden said at the White House ceremony, attended by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough.
“Paris, you are everything this medal means,” Biden said. “You’re everything our generation aspired to be. You’re everything our nation is at our best — brave and big-hearted, determined and devoted, selfless and steadfast, American.”
Biden went into considerable detail about how Davis went to great efforts to save his fellow Americans in Vietnam, including making numerous unsuccessful attempts to reach them while they were under enemy fire and suffering severe wounds.
The two-day ordeal began in Bong Son, Vietnam, where Davis was commanding an “inexperienced South Vietnamese” force and learned that a “vastly superior North Vietnamese enemy force” was in the area. “Through surprise and leadership, he gained the tactical advantage, personally engaging and killing several enemy soldiers,” during which he was wounded and then entered into hand-to-hand combat, the White House said in a release.
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Davis was struck by automatic weapon fire and had to engage an enemy soldier in combat during the attacks and counterattacks “close-quarter combat,” which left him wounded even further.
While calling for artillery and air support and leading his men to reorganize in an abandoned enemy area, Davis realized that two of his fellow Americans were “incapacitated and unable to move while trapped by enemy fire,” the White House said.
“Captain Davis located their positions and moved to suppress enemy guns and personally rescue each to the safety of the friendly company position. While enacting the rescue of the first American, Captain Davis was shot in the leg,” the White House said. “In great pain, he continued forward and dragged him to the company perimeter. Captain Davis then exposed himself again to the intense enemy fire to rescue the second American, crawling 150 yards to complete the rescue while being hit by enemy grenade fragments.”
Davis discovered that two of his fellow Americans were missing while ordering his soldiers to reassemble in an abandoned enemy territory and appealing for artillery and air backup “Captain Davis continued to engage the enemy until all members of his company were extracted,” the White House said. “He remained on the battlefield to continue personal coordination of tactical air and artillery fire, ensuring the destruction of the enemy force.”
Before a volunteer group of supporters reconstructed and resubmitted the documentation in 2016, Davis, 83, of Virginia, had his request for the medal lost, resubmitted, and then lost again. Davis told the Associated Press that he doesn’t know why it has taken so long for his valour to be acknowledged, even though some of them think prejudice was to blame for the delay.
“Right now I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “When you’re fighting, you’re not thinking about this moment. You’re just trying to get through that moment.” Davis’ experience growing up in the 1950s during segregation was highlighted by Biden at the event.
“To many, he was less than an American, and that in the eyes of the law, he was less than a person,” Biden said. “Signs on bars that read whites only, bus seats were off-limits for African Americans. Schools, streets, shops, are divided by segregation. Paris endured all of this and still chose to join his college ROTC unit, volunteering to serve a country that in many places still refused to serve people who look like him.”
For a book on Vietnam studies, Davis wrote about his experiences in the conflict. He said that while rescuing the first American, he shot a sniper hiding in a disguised manhole and then threw a grenade into the hole, killing two more foes.
“I ran out and pulled SSG Morgan to safety,” he wrote. “He was slightly wounded, and I treated him for shock. The enemy again tried to overrun our position. I picked up a machine gun and started firing.” Davis said the second American, who he said was MSG Waugh, had been wounded in his right foot.
“I tried to pick him up, but I was unable to do so. I was shot slightly in the back of my leg as I ran for cover,” wrote Davis, who said he then ran out again and was then shot in the wrist. “But I was able to pick up MSG Waugh and carried him fireman style in a hail of automatic weapon fire to safety.”
Davis’ commanding officer recommended him for the military’s top honor, but the paperwork disappeared — something Biden mentioned Friday. The president said the men who were with Davis during the combat operation in Vietnam immediately nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but “some the paperwork was never processed — not just once, but twice.”
Davis later got the third-highest combat decoration, the Silver Star Medal, as an interim award; nonetheless, Davis’ team has claimed that Davis’ skin color contributed to removing his Medal of Honor recommendation. In an interview with the AP, Ron Deis, a younger member of the Bong Son crew, expressed his opinion that “someone purposely lost the paperwork.”
Early in 2021, Christopher Miller, who was acting defense secretary at the time, requested a quick review of Davis’ situation. During that year, he argued in a column that giving Davis the Medal of Honor would correct an injustice.
“Some issues in our nation rise above partisanship,” Miller wrote. “The Davis case meets that standard.” According to Army officials, Davis’ case does not involve any evidence of racism.
“We’re here to celebrate the fact that he got the award, long time coming,” Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, told the AP. “We, the Army, you know, we haven’t been able to see anything that would say, ‘Hey, this is racism.’”
“We can’t know that,” Roberson said. The White House said the conduct for those who qualify for the Medal of Honor “must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life.”
Regan Davis Hopper, a mother of two teenage sons and Davis’ daughter, said to the AP that she was first aware of her father’s bravery in 2019. But like him, she claimed that she makes an effort not to focus on her dissatisfaction with how the circumstance was handled.
“I try not to think about that. I try not to let that weigh me down and make me lose the thrill and excitement of the moment,” Hopper said. “I think that’s most important, to just look ahead and think about how exciting it is for America to meet my dad for the first time. I’m just proud of him.”